She made her way to the only empty stool, her eyes glazed over, revealing the depths of her cups.
“How are you?” I asked, shaking drinks in both hands for a service ticket.
“Wonderful!” She beamed, the buttons of her suit—bought during the last boom—about to burst. “Fan-tastic, you’re never going to believe. . .,” but before she could go on, her lip caught the snag of a bald gentleman in a dark suit. Recognizing Madeline, he broke the silence by ordering her a drink. “Whatever she’d like,” he said before kissing her on the cheek.
Wide-eyed, she straightened and thanked him over-generously for what I initially took to be not remembering his name. As I served her wine, her eyes thanked me for distracting him.
“How are you?” She asked, lunging toward me.
“Just fine, thanks,” I said, stirring another cocktail. “You look happy this evening.”
“I am,” she said, “look!” She held out her ring finger, glorified, before she finally sat down. “It was the most romantic thing ever.” She grunted a laugh. “He just came home from work and said, ‘Here, honey, I got this for you.’ Waddya think?’”
“Oh my…,” another woman exclaimed.
“Wow, that’s fantastic…congratulations,” came another response from the other end of the room. Even the bald man forced a smile, but his eyes held back little of his disappointment. “Oh…so, you are getting married?” He asked, rubbing his sleeve around the rim of his dome.
“Yes. I am getting married.”
“I see.” He drank deeply. There was a palpable pause as everyone resumed their previous conversations. “I never knew you were seeing anyone,” he said, his guarded tone intended to repel me from arranging near them beneath the bar.
She placed both hands on her glass, as if bracing herself. “I’ve known him for a long time. I had been friends with his two previous wives. He is a very strong and gentle man…with a young daughter, and our children get along fabulously! My son has always wanted a father. He even asked when it would be okay to start calling him daddy.”
“I see.” The man’s shoulders fell, his voice as dry as his wine.
She turned to face him and he took her hand to examine the filigree close to her exposed thigh.
As part of my smokescreen, I asked Henry if he was ready for another beer.
“That would be great,” he said, without looking up from his phone, but I knew him well enough to assume he was paying close attention, too, to the man and Madeline. Almost a year ago, he had been furious with her, later accusing her of being an alcoholic mother who ignored the pleas of her caged son while sipping Glenlivet around a table surrounded by Barbie dolls. I imagined that behind his stoic front he was wryly amused by the night’s parade of events.
“What are you working on?” I asked.
“Just an idea, finally come to life. Ever hear of Miss Manners?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Her column was as dry as sawdust, but after invoking the right frame of mind (he hand-signaled an imaginary toke) she can be hilarious.” He finally looked up. “Some woman gives answers about etiquette, like Dear Abby, but about social situations. They’re funny because we see them happening around us all the time.”
He stole a look at Madeline, who was now turned to face the man, his hand gliding over hers like they were children mourning the loss of the afternoon’s pet butterfly.
“Here’s one,” Henry said, “about a married woman worried about a flirtatious co-worker who made her feel guilty about hanging out during happy hour.”
“What did Miss Manners say?”
“Gentle Reader, flirting is a part of everyday life, and it is harmless when kept within the bounds of your commitments to others. While the boundaries are often difficult to discern, one should be concerned only when one of you names a time and a place. No matter whether it is agreed upon or not, when that happens, the situation is no longer mere flirtation. Think about it, you’re hanging out after work; laughing, drinking, having a good time. You haven’t done anything wrong, right? Not until the girl at the bar decides to go somewhere. At that moment, it’s no longer innocent.”
Madeline swooned, “…it’s for the children…”
I knew then that I needed to make a move. Grabbing the bottle of cab, I offered to pour the man another, allowing his flinch of anger to pass right through me. Noticing his empty glass, his hands sprang from her lap and went straight for his jacket pocket for his wallet, producing a fifty, as Madeline quickly excused herself for the loo.
Delivering the man’s change a moment later, I found him on his cell phone talking to her, giving him directions, I assumed, from the stall.
He tipped conservatively and left with a nod; her thin cigarette still smoldering.
Minutes later, she returned to claim the last drag. “What do I owe you?”
“He took care of you,” I said. “Seemed nice.”
“Oh he is,” she said, drowning her last sip.
Nodding, I pointed to her diamond ring. “Congratulations.”
Looking up from the money she left on the bar, she smiled good night.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.